Book review

Molecules That Amaze Us

by Paul May and Simon Cotton, CRC Press, 2015, 721 pages, paperback, ISBN 978 1 465 8960 5  $59.95 USD1

Poster with drawings of molecules and chilli peppers, orchid, flast, paint, plant and powder.Chemistry teachers everywhere will recognize the CRC Press (the Chemical Rubber Company) which has been publishing the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (aka the Rubber Book)2 since 1914. That compendium is likely on every teacher's bookshelf. Molecules that Amaze Us is another reference that every chemistry teacher ought to have. May and Cotton have created a resource that is easy to read, compelling, entertaining, interesting and informative. It is both scholarly and general in its content and as such, can make an excellent gift to a student.

In Molecules that Amaze Us, May and Cotton have collected sixty-seven molecules. These are used to segue into hundreds of analogues and derivatives. The authors have been thorough in their research using primary publications as their main sources — the bibliography is 125 pages long. Each molecule has its own chapter and is arranged alphabetically, beginning with ATP and ending with water. Chapters begin with a molecular structure and often include a photo or catch phrase that is significant to the molecule, for example "truffles" for dimethylsulfide.

But rather than simply write about each one, May and Cotton pose questions similar to those a student or an interested colleague might pose, which, as one answers them, weave the reader through the chapter. Generally, there is a historical portion starting with who discovered the molecule, how it can be synthesized, who first determined its structure and how the molecule affects us. Other interesting chemical facts are also included. Each chapter is short and to the point. Many provide equations for synthesis and molecular structures of derivatives. Often there is a note of historical importance or a story behind the scenes. For example, in the chapter on β-carotene, you can learn the origin of how eating carrots improves night vision.

While the molecules are presented alphabetically, some broad groupings can be observed. The majority are organic although the book has a small group of inorganic molecules such as heavy water, Freon and nitrous oxide. The organic subset includes food molecules, toxins and biochemical molecules, drugs and explosives. For the teacher, these molecules are lesson precursors. In many cases when the molecular structure is more complex than the high school syllabus requires, a teacher could highlight the functional groups or ester and amide linkages. Another highlight is how a minor molecular difference can create a completely different functionality. The molecular structure of the female hormones estradiol, estrone and progesterone are remarkably similar to testosterone.

While the inorganic group is small in number, it is large in content. Also included are ionic "molecules" sodium hypochlorite and ammonium nitrate. The beauty of this group is that any of these molecules can be easily incorporated into a lesson, replete with bonding characteristics and VSEPR shapes.

Many organic examples are found in our food, such as sucrose, capsaicin from peppers, lauric acid (coconut oil) and linoleic acid. The authors examine how these food molecules are digested, how they assist the body's chemistry and how the body makes use of them. In the case of linoleic acid, the derivation of the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid nomenclature is detailed along with why it is considered "essential". The chapter on sucrose includes the artificial sweeteners saccharin, aspartame and sucralose. May and Cotton clearly dispel the fear for the safety of these substances noting that the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) has described aspartame as "one of the most thoroughly tested food additives…"3

A number of interesting toxins are discussed in Molecules That Amaze Us; some are toxic to insects such as DEET and DDT while others pose a risk to humans. Dimethylmercury and VX gas are just two examples. Still others are natural such as tetrodotoxin (from puffer fish) and epibatidine (from frogs). May and Cotton explain the effect of these poisons, the LD50 (the median lethal dose), possible antidotes (if they exist) and methods of manufacture, or in the case of the puffer fish delicacy, how to avoid being poisoned.

Biochemical molecules make up perhaps the largest group, which includes hormones, adrenaline, cholesterol, dopamine and heme. Where these molecules are found, how they are created and/or metabolized and their function are all described. One of these molecules even has a link to the movie The Imitation Game. The dark and bright sides of cholesterol are fascinating — especially to a statin user like myself. Intriguing too is the creation of the names for these substances. You may not want to know the derivation of premarin, used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) especially if you are using it.

The drugs are another very interesting grouping. These include disease-fighting drugs such as penicillin, cisplatin for cancer, quinine and its derivatives for malaria, as well as pain relievers — aspirin and paracetamol (acetaminophen). They also include drugs of abuse such as morphine and derivatives, LSD, methamphetamine, THC (in marijuana) and the more common, caffeine and nicotine. These molecules are presented in both a clinical and a chemical manner but with a very human face.

Molecules That Amaze Us has a lot that a chemistry teacher can use. The perfume chapter explains the chemistry of perfumes, their various "notes" and the origin of Chanel No. 5. In addition, besides reactions and syntheses, teachers can incorporate the information on bonding, structure and properties, numerous balanced equations and thermodynamic references.

I cannot imagine a chemistry teacher not appreciating every molecule's short vignette with all the learning and teachable content that can arise from each one. Read Molecules That Amaze Us and then put it on your bookshelf beside your Handbook. You'll refer to it often.


  1. Price information taken from the CRC website